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Right To Information Act (RTI) – An Overview

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The Act was established to make the government accountable for its work by empowering citizens to demand information regarding its activities. This act applies to both the Central and the State Governments of India except Jammu and Kashmir, which has its own act called Jammu & Kashmir Right to Information Act, 2009. Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen may request information from a “public authority” (a body of Government or “instrumentality of State”) which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days. The Act also requires every public authority to computerize their records for wide dissemination and to pro-actively publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally. This law was passed by Parliament on 15th June, 2005 and came fully into force on 13th October, 2005.The Right to Information

What information are we talking about?
The RTI aims to allow citizens to ask for records, documents, circulars, contracts, reports, papers, emails, memos and all other information held in print or electronic form from the public authorities, i.e. all the governing bodies. There are certain sections of administrative activities that are exempt from the RTI Act, details of which can be found in Section 8 and 9 of RTI Act 2005.

The RTI Act 2005 also empowers citizens to physically inspect the records that have been duly maintained by the government and its administrative bodies.

Who can ask for information and on what grounds?
All citizens can ask for information whether they want to inspect the work and activities of the Government or simply exercise their right to other information and documents that were mentioned earlier. If you are a citizen who seeks information or want to inspect records of governing and administrative bodies, you are a valid applicant.images (14)

As a citizen, applicant under the RTI and as an information seeker, you are not required to give any reasons if you wish to seek information under the RTI Act.

Fee to file an RTI application?
As per the RTI Act 2005, applicants will incur fees and costs that include, but may not be limited to the following

Initial application

  • Demand draft, banker’s cheque or cash with subsequent receipt of Rs. 10

Fees for information sought

  • Rs. 2 per page printed, copied or created in A4 or A3 size
  • Cost of the page or paper
  • Rs. 50 per disc if information is given in that form
  • Cost or actual price of sample or models requested under the RTI Act

Fees for inspection of records

  • First hour is free after which there is a fee of Rs. 5 per hour

How long will it take?
Information sought under the RTI 2005 will be supplied within a time period of 30 days. However it has been stated in the RTI Act 2005 guide that if the information ‘concerns the life and liberty of a person’, it will be supplied in 48 hours.

What if you don’t receive the RTI information or wish to appeal?

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The RTI Act 2005 guide also mentions that if you as an applicant have given your application to an Assistant CPIO or the wrong public authority, 5 days will be added to the generally prescribed time frame.

The RTI Act 2005 has set forth guidelines and procedures for applicants who have not been given the information they seek in time or are not satisfied with the information provided to them. Here is an overview of the appeals procedure

  • As an applicant, you should file an appeal with the relevant first appellate authority within 30 days of the date that was the last day of the expiry of the 30 day time period to supply information.
  • Your appeal will be reviewed and disposed within 30 days of receipt, or 45 days in ‘exceptional cases’.
  • As an applicant, if your appeal is not disposed or you are still left unsatisfied, you can file a second appeal to Central Information Commission. This appeal must be done within 90 days from the date that was the last day of the 30 or 45 day time period of the first appeal.

Cumulative RTI statistics for past 3 years

Here are some numbers released by authorities that give you an idea about number of RTI applications that were filed / rejected in last 3 year

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Aspects 2008-09 2009-10 2010-11
Opening balance of RTI requests (as on 1st April of the reporting year) 32,792 97,474 1,37,771
Number of requests received during the year 329,728 5,29,274 4,17,955
Total number of requests at the end of the reporting year 362,520 6,26,748 5,55,726
Number of Requests rejected 23,954 34,057 21,621
Requests rejected as a percentage of requests received during the year 7.26% 6.43% 5.20%
Requests rejected as percentage of total number of requests at the end of reporting year 6.60% 5.43% 3.89%

POSITIVE ASPECTS – RTI ACT, 2005

A political and historical revolution in progress ?

From 1947 till 2005, citizens in general only used to vote and pay taxes. They did not actively participate in governance. Till around 1980, the only citizens who participated in politics were Gandhian-types and independent-minded journalists. Later, there was the growth of NGOs, but as they sought government support and funding, most of them did not oppose the government in a meaningful way. It is only since the passing of RTI Act 2005 that citizens at large have begun to participate in governance, and hold the govt. and administration accountable by asking tough questions and demanding answers. In fact, after RTI ordinances were passed of Maharashtra and other states in 2002, thousands of activist citizens all over the country started filing RTI applications and unearthing dirt and corruption. This number has now swelled to several lakhs.

Shift in balance of power towards ordinary citizen?

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The passing of the Right To Information Act in 2005 gave citizens a new stand with regard to the government and administration, enabling ordinary people to demand access to documents that were so far “official secrets” or “marked confidential”. The RTI Act changed the balance of power between citizens and bureaucracy. Early pioneers (like late Prakash Kardaley, Late Kewal Semlani and Shailesh Gandhi and Anna Hazare in Maharashtra, Aruna Roy in Rajasthan and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi region) systematically taught people the logic of RTI, creating a well-informed swarm of citizens to question the government on non-performance, arbitrariness and corruption.

Technology is playing a key role in this sweeping change. Email groups, blogs and mobile technology are acting as hubs in the further education of citizens and media by a second generation of RTI activists and experts. With hundreds of aggressive activists, there is now a mass movement that is no longer dependent on the initiatives of a few enlightened persons. Indeed, judicial and administrative reforms today provokes popular emotions that were earlier seen only in issues like river-water-sharing, linguistic borders and reservations

Crime fighting is now a socially recognized activity? images (5)

It is no exaggeration to say that RTI “activists”  are modern-day detectives and crime-fighters.Forced by deliberate failure of authorities to stop ongoing criminal activities, they set out to expose the crimes and the complicity of officials.Unknowingly, the State is itself creating such crime-fighters through its inaction. Agonizingly slow case disposal by Information Commissioners discourages many information seekers. But it also turns substantial numbers of information seekers into experts and hard-boiled activists. During the 6-18 months of waiting for hearings at State and Central Information Commissioners, frustrated RTI applicants get lots of free advice from senior colleagues, network together and establish groups. Together, they evolve ingenious ways of challenging the system with a combination of RTI applications to various public authorities, complaints, sting operations, media exposes etc. They develop various legal and  administrative methods for seeking remedy. The slow-moving system is thus helping to create an army of its own enemies.

Rising legal awareness of ordinary citizen 

The RTI Act is seen as the only law that enables a citizen to get a bureaucrat or government servant penalized, or be subjected to departmental enquiry and disciplinary action. This has excited and attracted the common citizen – included semi-educated types – into an effort to take ownership of this law, and understand its workings in the practical world. It has also brought the common citizen closer to laws in general. Lakhs of educated information-seekers and activists spend hours daily exchanging legal notes on the internet.Even where internet has not reached, there are, on any given day of the week, a score of activists and NGO workers sitting with villagers and slum-dwellers, patiently explaining the rules of the game and helping to draft requests for information, and appeals against unjustified delay and denial. Through RTI, legal awareness has entered India’s DNA. RTI activists and users are not only studying RTI Act and rules of various States, courts, etc, but also scrutinizing the rules, norms, manuals, guidelines, contracts, penalty clauses, etc. of various government organizations, public works awarded to contractors etc. Also, they are studying and discussing the structure of various other laws such as Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code etc., which was earlier left only to lawyers and judges

RTI success stories

Balachandra vs Union of India

JSW Energy Ltd a private sector company proposed to construct a 1200-MW coal-fired thermal power station at Jaigarh, Maharashtra. This area is flush with mango orchards. Under the Environment Impact Notification of 1994, issued by the Government of India such a power station can only be constructed after obtaining environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). Applications for environmental clearance must include an Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA Report). The purpose of this report is to predict the adverse impact that the proposed project may have on the environment.

JSW Energy applied to the MOEF for environmental clearance, and they referred the matter to a committee of experts. JSW Energy told the committee that a university would undertake a study of the environmental impact, within six months. The committee decided that the proposal may be considered further only after the study on the impact of the project on alphonso mango plantations was completed. Three months later, the committee reconsidered the matter. Even after noticing that an interim report from the university stated that it “is necessary to undertake a detailed study for a period of 4 years to evaluate impact”, the project was still conditionally approved.

Petitioner B.B. Nalwade, who owned a mango orchard in the area, challenged the conditional approval on multiple grounds, including erroneously relying on the inconclusive university report.

Use of RTI

B.B. Nalwade filed before the Court information he obtained under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). Part of this information was correspondence between JSW Energy and the university. JSW Energy had requested the university to give its expert opinion on the impact of the proposed power station on mango plantations near the project site. The University declined the request. They stated that they had neither generated the necessary data, nor had the expertise to undertake such studies, and that such studies required collaboration with government or semi-government institutes. They would only provide limited assistance by observing mangoes and vegetation. JSW Energy subsequently requested that the university conduct a detailed study, with JSW bearing the expenses and arranging for collaboration with government or semi-government institutes.

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Science and Technology Park, Pune was brought in to collaborate with the university in a joint study of the impact of the proposed power plant on the environment, particularly the mango plantations. B.B. Nalwade sought information under the RTI Act months after the committee granted approval. The response revealed that the two organisations met and there was a list of equipment required for the study, but the impact survey had not started, no samples were collected, and no equipment was received. In India, the doctrine of sustainable development strikes a balance between development and protecting the environment. This doctrine has resulted in the development of several principles, one of which is the precautionary principle.

This principle makes it mandatory for the government to anticipate, prevent, and attack causes of environmental degradation. (Para. 24). This requires that if it is not possible to make a decision with “some confidence, then it makes sense to err on the side of caution and prevent activities that may cause serious or irreversible harm.” (Para. 26). Regulatory action is justified where environmental risks are “uncertain but not negligible, with the burden of proof lying on those who are attempting to change the status quo.” (Para. 26). The information obtained under the RTI Act implied a lack of confidence, so under the precautionary principle, the committee should have erred on the side of caution.

Decision

The Court directed the committee to re-examine the approval after considering the reports of the university on the basis of data actually collected and analysed by them, and keeping in mind the principles of sustainable development. The Court also directed that till this approval is granted, if at all, the power plant cannot be made operational. JSW Energy was allowed, however, to undertake tests and operational trials while awaiting the committee’s decision.

Utkarsh Mandal vs UOI

Facts

Mining projects require prior environmental clearance before commencement. Such environmental clearances are granted by the Government of India through its Ministry of Environment and Forests after evaluation by a specially constituted Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC). Panduranga Timblo Industries (PT Industries), a private sector company, sought environmental clearance to re-start mining operations in Goa. The EAC evaluated and accepted the proposal for environmental clearance, and the Government of India granted clearance to PT Industries. The petitioners appealed the environment clearance to the National Environmental Appellate Authority (NEAA), but the appeal was dismissed. Subsequently, the petitioners approached the Delhi High Court, challenging the grant of environmental clearance and the dismissal of their appeal by the NEAA on the following grounds:

  • The public hearing held in the villages affected by the mining operations prior to the grant of environmental clearances was a farce as many people did not get an adequate opportunity to raise their objections;
  • The environmental clearance was granted by the Goa State Pollution Control Board without due application of mind;
  • The entire procedure was affected by a lack of fairness because the Chairperson of the EAC was himself on the board of four other mining companies, so the Chairperson of the EAC had a conflict of interests.

Use of RTI

In order to support their contention about conflict of interests the petitioners sought and obtained documents from the Ministry of Environment and Forests under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) that clearly showed that the Chairperson of the EAC was simultaneously serving on the board of four mining companies. When these documents were placed before the Court it found “an obvious and direct conflict of interest.”. The reply also revealed that the EAC had cleared about 410 mining proposals in just six months but had made only four site visits to evaluate the environmental impact of the mining leases. The Court found the large number of approvals in such a short period of time to be “unsatisfactory” and an “unseemly rush to grant environmental clearances”. The small number of site visits suggested to the Court that these may not have been conducted in the current case. The Court ordered the EAC to undertake site visits in order to evaluate the past operations of a mine before granting clearance to reopen it.

Decision

The Court set aside the grant of environmental clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and remanded the matter to a freshly constituted EAC. The Court directed the EAC to evaluate the matter under further directions specified in the judgement.

Demanding transparency in political finance

th22_lead_-politic_1525506eThroughout the world, political parties collect funds to build and sustain the organisation, to train party staffs and fight elections. Recognising that they are the main link to the citizens (as voters) and, by implication, the mainstay of democracy, many countries, including India, have helped cushion their expenses at public cost. But the major share of funding still comes from voluntary contribution. Undeniably the sources of such funding influence voting behaviour and that is why the subject impacts directly on democratic rights. Surprisingly when all important institutions of governance, including Parliament, the judiciary and certainly the executive, have attracted intense public attention, the financing of political parties has been left relatively untouched.

The CIC order

In 2011, two resolute RTI querists — the Association for Democratic Rights, an NGO, and an individual, Subhash Aggarwal — appealed to the Central Information Commission since political parties had refused to share information although by all accounts they were public bodies. The appeals were upheld in an order dated June 3, issued by the full bench of CIC, which ruled that six national political parties needed to provide information as sought by establishing the RTI apparatus as required. The logic: they were recipients of valuable state resources in the form of land, accommodation, and tax exemptions which amounted to “substantial funding” by the public exchequer. Accordingly, they were to be treated as public bodies and made answerable as such.

The day the order was announced, everyone knew that most political parties would come together to annul the damage done by the CIC. They would either seek judicial intervention or introduce fresh legislation to overturn the CIC’s order. Knowing this, the applicants immediately  filed a caution to prevent the grant of a stay against the order. All newspapers have since reported that a bill has even been kept in readiness to be introduced in the forthcoming session of Parliament seeking to exclude political parties from the ambit of RTI.

The major points of discord are: first, unfurling the RTI umbrella over political parties has implications for political strategy and functioning as once conceded, even information on the distribution or denial of ticket can be sought — clearly a situation that is untenable given the competitiveness, secrecy and intricacy of political decision-making. Second, political parties do not maintain the documentation needed to respond to wide-ranging RTI queries and they cannot be expected to establish a new organisation only to fulfil the sweeping questions that will come under the RTI. Third, if the argument that political parties received “substantial funding” is applied equitably, it would apply to all similarly placed NGOs. The ensuing demands for information from all such bodies would explode the scope of CIC’s functions and belie the prime objective of the RTI which was to provide information on government functioning. Fourth, when it is well known and publicly admitted that most political funding comes from black money sources and in cash, it is impossible to declare whose contribution it was without first cleaning up the “number two” monopoly.images (8)

In their place the arguments are not without validity. But none of them addresses the fundamental need to regulate political finance — something that progressive countries enforced decades ago. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) Handbook 2003 and its current website, in nearly 60 countries, which include the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, France, Germany and Thailand, political parties are bound to disclose all contributions beyond a specified threshold. India is not among them. Alongside there exists a ban on making anonymous donations to political parties in more than 45 countries which include all the above countries. Again India is not among them. Happily, India does have a provision for public disclosure of expenditure by political candidates but even so, there is no ceiling on party election expenditure — only candidates’ expenses. That leaves enormous scope for gargantuan indirect spending on elections so blithely admitted to by Gopinath Munde who now faces the wrath of the Election Commission for publicly pitching a figure of Rs 8 crore spent on his own election against the stipulated limit of Rs 25 lakh.

Our political parties appear to see the whole business of being pulled under the RTI as brinkmanship. They rest sanguine in the knowledge that civil society in general and RTI activists in particular can do little harm as the latter’s sphere of influence is essentially urban, middle-class and, for that very reason, circumscribed. Ultimately with no bridges to the people and little influence, they are secure in the knowledge that civil society would have no option but to pursue the public interest litigation route. That alternative despite some resounding successes is exasperatingly slow.

Preventing abuse

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Against this backdrop, is the almost universal position of political parties which refuse to give information at least on their funding to be accepted meekly? No, because at stake behind the demand for public disclosure of political finances are two important considerations: prevention of abuse (by using soiled money); the need to promote healthy political competition which requires sharing the sources and quantum of funding of each party with the voter.

Undoubtedly, the stalwarts in the RTI fraternity have done a great job by bringing the subject of political finance into prominence. That conceded, India now needs a law to bring it on a par with progressive countries worldwide. That means mandating disclosure and reporting rules that provide clarity about political funds — their sources and their utilisation.

We need a body akin to what has been set up in the U.S. under the Federal Election Campaign Act 1974 which created an enforcement agency called the Federal Election Commission.

This body supervises all financial transactions by political bodies that have solicited or spent money to support or defeat federal candidates. The organisation verifies all reports presented, and discloses the same to the public and the media. Ideally our Election Commission should be empowered to do exactly this, by law. If this were done there is no need for individual parties to give responses under RTI.

An opportunity

Every right-minded political party should look on the CIC verdict as an opportunity — not a threat. In fact, were even two national parties to voluntarily adopt a common reporting system it would remove clouds of opacity, greatly enhance public faith and demonstrate a concern for ethical standards. Others would perforce have to follow suit. Indeed this is a priceless moment for the political system to collectively break itself loose from criminal elements, unaccounted and excessive money power and to remove illegitimacy from the power game.

Political parties should pledge to support a law to ban anonymous donations and cash contributions beyond a threshold and put a ceiling on election related expenses of individual political parties. The Election Commission or a new statutory body should have full authority to oversee the inflow and outflow of political finance and institute legal action if scrutiny is stone-walled. As a public body, it should suo motu give information collected by it on its website and also arrange for regular media briefings based on the declarations made by political parties. But it should have no compunction in resorting to the use of Section 8 of RTI if the information sought by querists goes beyond the subject of political finance — so relieving political parties from the rigmarole of RTI and free to steer their internal political strategies in secrecy.

But first voters need the reassurance that political parties are concerned enough to unite to clean the mess. The present opportunity and its timing can be used to augur the much-needed change. If it is merely used to remove the irritant called RTI, it will show that self-preservation is more important to political parties than bringing transparency into their financial dealings. When half the countries in the world have a strict code and laws on political finance, insist on full public disclosure and impose ceilings on party election expenditure, should the Indian voter be forced to accept any less? When the model code of conduct for elections could be evolved so successfully simply through consensus, why not a model code for political finance?

Conclusion  

Currently political parties are up in arms against the CIC judgement which says they are public authorities and hence within the purview of the RTI Act. The public is infuriated that political parties should be opposed to the CIC order. It sees this as unwillingness on the part of the political class to practise transparency. Are political parties being unduly annoyed in the matter?

People are entitled to their views on whether it is desirable to bring political parties under the purview of the RTI Act. The important question, however, is what the RTI Act, as it stands, has to say on the subject. In other words, how sound is the legal basis for the CIC’s judgement?CIC gave three reasons in justification of its judgement: political parties “are continuously engaged in performing public duty”, receive substantial financing from the government and have important constitutional and legal rights and liabilities.”. But there is an opinion that this last criterion is not present in the definition of “public authority”at all.”
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The other two points are also subjected to scrutiny.Can political authorities be said to be “public authorities” because they perform public functions? But nowhere in the Act is a “public functions” test specified for determining whether an entity is a public authority. Who can be considered public authorities is laid down down very precisely in the Act. The CIC also refers to the fact that political parties are registered with the Election Commission and argues that this makes them somewhat similar to entities to established by government.
However, there is a Karnataka High Court  judgement that ruled that goes against this stand.
It is important to distinguish between transparency in respect of funding of political parties and the broader transparency required under the RTI Act. In respect of activities not related to raising funds, there are  arguments – that transparency may not be desirable
and may pose obstacles to their effective functioning:
First, as a body seeking to outdo other competing parties, a political party has the
right to keep certain parts of its activities hidden from public view.  …..Second, in light of the fact that the RTI creates this information asymmetry, the RTI mechanisms may become a tool of political warfare rather than a tool for promoting transparency.
The danger is stretching the RTI Act to cover entities it was not intended to is that it may end up discrediting the Act itself, quite apart from rendering the entire political class hostile to it.In the process, a most valuable instrument of empowerment and the purpose of rendering a whole range of public authorities accountable may fall by the wayside.
References 
  • http://www.thehindu.com/                                                                                                                                            
  • http://www.ndtv.com                                                                                                                                                       
  • http://www.wahsarkar.com/political-parties-vs-rti/

 

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